When Jesus, Peter, James and John return to the rest of the group, they find the other disciples arguing with a large crowd. Seeing Jesus, the crowd hurries to him, and he questions them about the argument.
It seems the disciples had attempted an exorcism in Jesus’ absence, and it hadn’t gone too well. While this probably should have driven everyone present to prayer, instead it leads to pettiness, factionalism, and childish bickering. What causes the argument? Most likely, in the eyes of the crowd—and especially the religious leaders—the failure of the disciples reflects poorly on the Master. He must not be much of a man or a teacher if his disciples can’t manage something as basic as an exorcism. Reeling with shame and indignation, the disciples push back, and the argument erupts.
In all this, the victim has been forgotten. So the father reminds them.
His heartbreaking account of his son’s affliction reminds us of the enemy’s ultimate aims: to destroy humanity. He knows he cannot defeat the Father, so he attacks God’s children, the apple of his eye, simply to wound and offend.
Jesus recognizes that the issue is a lack of faith (verse 19). He has the boy brought to him, and asks the boy’s father a few questions. The father replies, “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us” (verse 22).
Jesus is unimpressed by the conditional language. If? This is the Son of God! And those of who have gone with Mark to the Mount of Transfiguration have heard it directly from God the Father! But the boy’s father has only seen the failure of Jesus’ disciples, and he is left with very human doubt.
His reply to Jesus’ gentle rebuke captures the heart of discipleship as well as any one sentence can: “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (verse 24). The trouble with our faith so often is that we worry about the subject when we should focus on the object. It is not our faith that matters, but our faith in Christ that matters. And he is sufficient for every circumstance, trial, and temptation. He is more than enough.
That was the problem the disciples had, why they couldn’t cast the demon out. They were trying it in their own power—testing to see if they had enough faith—rather than humbly depending on the object of their faith, remembering that he has enough power.
When the disciples timidly seek an explanation for their failure, Jesus reminds them of this point exactly: “This kind can come out only by prayer” (verse 29). Prayer is the surest expression of faith, dependence even; it is the complete absence of self-reliance. “I know I cannot do this on my own, so I must seek the help of another. If this is going to happen, it will happen only in humble submission to the Father.”
In other words, “I do believe; only help me overcome my unbelief.”
Questions for Reflection and Application
- What doubts do you have? Do they center on God’s existence, goodness, presence, or love? Will you pray in humble submission, like the boy’s father, that God will help you overcome your unbelief?
- Do you tend towards self-reliance or humble dependence? How do you know? What action steps will you take to overcome self-reliance in the areas of your life where you know you are “going it alone” as the disciples tried? How will you cultivate an attitude of humble dependence?
- Evaluate your prayer life. If people were to listen to all of your prayers, would they think you believe in God and trust that only he can bring about change? Or would they think—probably because of an absence of prayers about different subjects—that you are depending on yourself? What changes do you need to make in your prayer life? Will you make them?